Responsible adults should be careful the type of media they encourage young children to peruse. A seemingly casual thumb through a magazine may be enough to plant a tiny seed in their imagination. This kernel may lay dormant for many summers but it might just germinate when the conditions are right. I know this to be true; it happened to me.
Many years ago, in deepest Glasgow, a series of events led to me and my Mum living with two special people, Angus and Marjie. They lived all their life in Glasgow but they loved looking beyond to the world. Pre-internet our portals to the world were framed by BBC documentaries and magazines. Every month, the National Geographic was delivered in an orange sleeve to Gladsmuir Road.
That’s how it happened: I stumbled on a piece about Tierra del Fuego. The name alone was enough to command attention but tales of ships being wrecked around the Cape Horn, pirate derring-do, along with photos of jagged peaks, whales and penguins, guaranteed that the Land of Fire was lodged firmly in my imagination. There I thought it would stay. Over the years, infrequent references to this part of the world (more documentaries, the war over Las Malvinas) rekindled interest but the chances of ever visiting seemed a distant hope; there would always be other priorities or easier places to reach within finite time. But, when Polly and I settled on starting our travels in South America it began to look possible.
Readers of this blog will have gathered that our trek south started on the north of Uruguay’s coast. Getting from there to Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world, meant travelling over 2700 miles, with 73 hours spent on ten separate bus journeys.
An overnight in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, allowed little time for a proper look. Initial impressions were good: In general, I am not a huge fan of capital cities but this place felt calm. I regret we didn’t plan more time here and all we managed while passing through was a quick visit to the excellent Torres Garcia gallery.
Crossing the River del Plate in the morning fog to Buenos Aires was a real disappointment; we couldn’t see a thing. Buenos Aires has all the pros and cons of a big city; with three children in tow, it felt like hard work. Constant refrains about the various dangers awaiting tourists from well-meaning locals did little to encourage venturing beyond the centre. I have to say, it didn’t feel any more edgy than London or Glasgow but as we had just started our year away we erred on the side of caution. With three blonde children being a bit of a giveaway that we’re not local, or anywhere near local, it will take time to teach them the right balance between assurance that the overwhelming majority of people we meet will wish us well but that they do need to keep alert and follow our lead in certain areas.
That said, we did manage a fair bit of traipsing round the city: a thought-provoking exhibition at the Museum of Latin American Art https://macneilandjones.wordpress.com/2016/09/20/the-art-of-politics/ prompted conversations about this continent’s complex history. The Recoleta, a cemetery where various notable poets, soldiers, politicians are entombed, looked pretty impressive but, to be honest, my attention span for such fare is pretty short. While the rest of the crew were looking around, I was sitting on a bench enjoying the sunshine, letting my mind wander when I spotted THE Tom Jones in the cemetery. He was definitely alive.
Leaving Buenos Aires, we started the long trudge south. Argentina is big, I mean really big. I tell the children that it is the 8th largest country, they ask what the other seven are. My retort, that this would be a good point for them to research later, exposed my ignorance to all but the five year old.
For two days there were miles after miles Argentinian Pampas; country flatter and drier than Norfolk, with only counting cows and the odd guanaco (it looks a bit like a llama) to pass the time. A couple of stop-overs in provincial towns provided respite (Bahia Blanca, Viedma); it was good to be out of the big city. There was a welcome three day stop by the seaside in Puerto Madryn: a whale-watching excursion delighted the children but for me what was really special was seeing and hearing these magnificent mammals while on a morning run or afternoon stroll along the beach.
A mammoth 19-hour overnight bus to Rio Gallegos covered the ground necessary to allow for a three-day detour to El Calafate. Here we were rewarded with our first glimpses of the Andes and a visit to the Perito Moreno glacier.
After an unremarkable return to Rio Gallegos, we embarked on the final haul south. The bus had to criss-cross the disputed frontiers between Argentina and Chile, twice, with all the palaver of passport controls; nether country was taking this as just a formality. A ferry taking us across the Magellan straight was accompanied by a small pod of Commerson’s dolphins, surfing bow waves; generating squeals from the children.
Twenty-six days after leaving home, we arrived in Ushuaia and, thankfully, it was worth it. I don’t have the words to describe what it felt like to be in a fair sized town, nestled among dark snow-capped peaks with edges as sharp as incisors, knowing that Antarctica is only a few miles away.
We didn’t waste one of our six days. Building a snowman at the foot of the Marcial Glacier (an ice-cube compared to the Perito Moreno); getting the children’s travel journals stamped with the Ushuaia passport stamp (to prove they’d been to the ‘Fin del Mundo’); hiking along a lake’s shore to the Chilean border, in the middle of bloody nowhere, talking with Ishbel and Neamh about the absurdity of frontier lines, especially those that try and carve-up a mountain or cross a lake; trying to persuade Ruaridh that there was no need to be completely ‘tooled-up’ at all times and that three sticks (sorry, “spears, guns, swords”) were enough to carry on any hike. Years of training enduring Scottish summers ensured that we didn’t feel out of place sitting on a beach like the locals one Sunday but the risk of hypothermia meant that I had to deny the children’s request to get their cossies on.
Each day felt special as wherever we turned, there was another amazing scene. Each day felt special as I know that this is certainly one place I never really thought I’d manage to visit and, realistically, there’s no chance I’ll return. Neamh celebrated her eighth birthday when we were there. Angus died seven years ago but Marjie is alive and kicking, still living in Strathcylde. Through the wonders of the internet we managed to phone her on Neamh’s birthday without breaking the bank. The line wasn’t great and while I know Neamh said ‘thanks’ for the package Marjie had sent with us for the occasion, I’m not sure I conveyed my gratitude properly. Thanks, Marjie.
Michael MacNeil, 8 October 2016